Thursday, March 14, 2013

Is Anybody Listening?

In 1998, following the referendum in Northern Ireland in respect to the Good Friday Agreement, the politician Gerry Fitt said ‘The people have spoken and the politicians have had to listen.’ Seventeen years later, I wonder whether Whitehall has forgotten that lesson.

That thought commenced with the recent publication of figures from the Office for National Statistics. Evidently, some 3,599,000 people permanently left the UK in 2011. ‘So what?’ you may well ask; ‘aren’t we an overcrowded little island with insufficient housing stock, too few jobs and the incapacity to grow our own food requirement?’ The answer is, of course, in the affirmative. However, the worrying aspect is that two million of those leavers were young people (aged 25-44).

In a country where the older population is growing increasingly dependent on enough young people being around to work in order to provide economic growth, pay the tax to fund our pensions, and care for us in our aged ill-health and infirmity, we need to retain these people in their mother-country. Instead, we are seeing a repetition of the ‘brain drain’ of scientists, academics, doctors and executives seen during the post-war years and the seventies, when talented professionals fled these shores for the USA and Australia. In reality, lured by increased opportunities, better lifestyles and lower taxes, who can blame them? If I was ten-or-so years younger I would be seriously tempted to join them. Instead, I am nearer to joining the band of retired ex-patriots fleeing to warmer climes than throwing my lot in with the bright young things; and if the results of a recent survey of doctors are anything to go by, that departure could be a lot sooner than expected.

Regular readers of this column will know that I occasionally write about the decline of the embattled NHS. Oh, okay, I admit it; I frequently write about it. But it is a subject very close to my heart, and it is something that should be very close to yours as well, as you will miss it when it is no longer with us. Well, the latest news from war-torn General Practice is that, as a profession, we are at breaking point. The increased demands, very long working-days, and reduced investment are pushing many GPs nearer to the edge. In a large study of GPs from the South West of England, 96% responded that the workload had become more intense and complex, and the working day much longer over the past three years. What is more, 84% felt that their present high work load was unsustainable (with 48% saying that the workload was ‘dangerously unsustainable’), 66% have fears that their practices will not survive the contract changes that the Government seems set on imposing, and 50% are considering leaving the profession.

There can be no doubt that the ‘people are speaking’, and our politicians would do well to remember the maxim of the American physician and poet, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said ‘it is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen’. Are you listening in Whitehall?

(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday 31st January 2013)

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